Thursday, February 24, 2011

Endowed by Their Creator

This is an interesting phrase. If the Founding Father meant “God” why didn’t they just use the “G” word? Along with the phrase “Nature’s God” it leads some to assume this is a Deist or Stoic document. It reminds me of the current debate over saying “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” Obviously the Founders weren’t upset with the generic references to the Deity. They apparently didn’t have a Bill O’Reilly to bemoan the specter of “secular Whigs.” Still, why the use of the word “Creator?”

Let’s look at the whole sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration's preamble is virtually a summary of Locke’s Second Treatise. Locke derives natural rights from the natural law of self-preservation. These quotes of the Founders indicate the fundamentality of the law of self-preservation. In other words, it is man’s mortality that requires that he labor and secure the product of his labor. Being mortal is obviously “unalienable”; man was created as a mortal being, requiring industry for his sustenance and self-preservation.

This, of course, is a very naturalistic derivation of rights. Locke (as Aquinas before him) saw no conflict between reason and religion--nor did the Founding Fathers. However, this line of argument fits awkwardly with the Bible as it is usually understood. In the Bible, Adam initially didn’t have to labor to sustain his life. Self-preservation and hard work become necessary by his Fall. Thus, the need for private property to secure the fruit of his labor wasn't inherent in his creation; it was Adam’s Fall and eviction from the Garden of Eden that changed his fate. God as Lord and Master, not as Creator, imposed that burden. Isn't this how the Founders read the Bible? Or Locke?

It isn’t clear that this notion of “unalienable” or “inalienable” rights comes from Locke. Locke refers to the law of self-preservation as a duty owed to God, our creator (Ch 2, section 6). If we go further and consult Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity” we find:
“what Adam fell from (is visible) was the state of perfect obedience, which is called justice in the New Testament; though the word, which in the original signifies justice, be translated righteousness: and by this fall he lost paradise, wherein was tranquillity and the tree of life; i. e. he lost bliss and immortality ... that the state of paradise was a state of immortality, of life without end; which he lost that very day that he eat: his life began from thence to shorten, and waste, and to have an end; and from thence to his actual death ...”
Adam wasn’t created mortal with a need for self-preservation and rights. Human nature apparently changed 5700 years ago (rather recent by evolutionary standards!) If this is the case, Natural Law is not Eternal Law! It is not “coeval with mankind” as Blackstone expressed it. This agreement of religion and reason isn't as easy as promised.

For Locke, mankind became mortal after the Fall, securing rights became part of man’s need of self-preservation. While Locke implies rights are unalienable, it was John Trenchard who added this powerful wording in letter No. 59 called “Liberty Proved to be the Unalienable Right of all Mankind”. He writes, “All men are born free; liberty is a gift which they receive from God himself; nor can they alienate the same by consent, though possibly they may forfeit it by crimes.” The logic here isn’t as clear and rigorous as Locke. It introduces the grace of God (i.e. gift), which makes rights an alienable addition; and he doesn’t tie rights to self-preservation. (He does better in letter No. 60 when he essentially paraphrases the “2nd Treatise” and “Letter of Concerning Toleration.”)

How well does the Lockean theory fit with the spirit of religion? The centrality of self-preservation, “the first law of nature” as Sam Adams puts it, is an odd focus for a religious foundation. Duty, as opposed to self-interest, tends to be the operative concern of every religion to my knowledge. After all, are people so passionate about killing themselves that one has to issue exhortations to do otherwise?

As far as political philosophy is concerned, Locke and the Founding Father used religion in a minimalist manner. Very little is required to establish the principle of unalienable rights. What is missing may be more interesting than what is included. Not only are all the other “natural laws” of social morality superfluous but God’s positive laws also aren’t required for the establishment of fundamental political principles. Locke makes a distinction between God’s positive law and natural law. He quotes Hooker making the same distinction. (By the way, Aquinas makes the same distinction.) By omitting God’s positive law, all the commandments and covenants of the Bible become irrelevant to the political foundation of a rights-respecting order. Lockean theory is explicitly religious but in a minimal manner that allows almost any religion or no religion to sign-on to his philosophy.

I’m not implying that the Founders weren’t generally predisposed to religion or the lessons of the Bible. My focus is on the public document and the reasoning that went into it. I think we can agree that the whole purpose of this important sentence in the Declaration is to remove man's rights from positive law. It is general enough that no one is offended--orthodox, deist, or otherwise. I can’t help but think that the Founders wanted it that way.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Outstanding analysis.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I appreciate the post. It seems fair and balanced in regard to religon, philosophy, and rights.

I think you make a very good point as to the difference of postive law in religion. Duty is a requirement of a religious conscience, as it is not free to consent. It is under "God's positive law". But, a conscience that is free can consent to duty, but is not bound by it. That is the difference in a free society and one that is not. And it is also why religion is not a good foundation for a free society.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, James Otis wrote in 1764:

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."

Is that religion?

James Otis, the First Founder? More here:

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Jonathan. I’ve been giving it some thought.

Glad you liked the post, Angie. I’m not sure it talks about your notion of “duty.” Of course they also read Cicero’s ethical treatises, De Officiis, a title that is usually translated as “On Duty” as I've mentioned in my first post in this venue. In some sense they accepted the concept of duty from both religious and secular sources. They also believed that natural law, in addition to divine positive law, was created by God. Cicero also accepted natural law as created by God (singular) as did Locke.

The Founders were eclectic. I believe here their Locke (perhaps with some help of Trenchard and Gordon) shows most here. The role of natural rights was essential. Whether they saw these natural rights as essential parts of human nature that define man’s being (and logically impossible to sunder) or whether they saw this as the result of the fall (or both!) is seldom or perhaps never discussed--largely because they didn’t argue over the foundations of rights. Note that they saw “these truths as self-evident.” Self-evident means they need no argument.

They nevertheless saw these rights as both natural and created by God. Here and elsewhere they seem to avoid a reliance on God's positive law (not that I have a doubt that they respect it) for a foundation of political philosophy. What is the "best" foundation? That's beyond mere history. But it is my personal believe that the importance of natural rights (regardless of their origin) is one of the lessons of the American Revolution.

Now, Tom is moving on the the next sentence “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted ...” That’s a bigger discussion! I took the easy sentence. ;)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Governments are instituted "BY MEN", to secure these rights...That is the necessity of government, to protect the rights of individuals. Isn't this what our Constitution does, when we address grievances?

I don't believe that one has to depend on an "understanding of God" to formulate government. In fact, "God" can be a means to injustice, because of a "justification" of conscience concerning "what one should or shouldn't do". Religous people are good about a dutiful conscience. Because one is viewed as "under God", when one is submitted to government.

Government is a neutral term, as government's interests, and leaders determine whether government is "good or bad". So, it is not JUST for those that are under government, but for those IN government. Those leading a country that are "good" or "bad" leaders.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is also my understanding that those that are able to rule themselves, don't have to have government "watching over them". Government can be disrespectful or the human ability to self-rule, when it becomes paternalistic and overbearing.

The individual has recourse under good government, because government acknowledges the indivdiual's right of self-ownership, which includes property rights. This is why we agree and consent to be governed because of certain protections under law!

Jason Pappas said...

There are two different issues: fundamental rights, and government to secure these rights. There are two sentences in the Declaration to express these two thoughts.

The Lockean argument relies on God in such a minimal matter that I'd argue one could omit the reference with no loss of logic ... but the Founding Fathers didn’t do that. That's the history.

There are some who'd argue that the Founder's Republicanism was a movement away from Locke's individual rights doctrine. I don't share that belief.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jason said, "There are some who'd argue that the Founder's Republicanism was a movement away from Locke's individual rights doctrine. I don't share that belief."

Is the above the issue whether human rights are based on a leaders affirmation of those rights? And that would be the Republican "ideal", as government is representative, and those not considered "citizens", are not considered "in" or privy to the priviledges of citizenship? Then, the "rule of law" is what makes the distinction of who is "in".

I suppose the immigration issue would be a good example of how to understand the difference between Republicanism and Liberalism.

Republicanism (conservatism) would uphold the "nation-states" laws to protect the nation's interests, and thus its citizens; while liberalism would argue that the individual immigrant has inalienable rights irregardless of the laws that don't affirm them.

The basic "bottom line" is; do all humans have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as is understood in liberalism as "human rights"?

The challenge for today, is how do we maintain a distinction that allows for diverse identity factors, and yet, affirm "human rights"?

All nations, and groups and individuals must have boundary markers that give them distinction, and yet, the "human" is the unifying factor for "us" all.

The Declaration of Independence was a liberal document that is useful for affirming "human rights", while the Constitution is a document that defines our nations' value or the "rule of law". Both are necessary to affirm, because they are necessary values to uphold distinctives, and universals.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think the bondary around the nation state, the indvidual states and the individual himself need protection If we believe in a free society, in all its elements.

I just read where Madison held the view the the horozonal controls on government (Legislative, Executive and Judicial) and the vertical (Federal, state and Local) are all needed to bring about a society of checks and balances.

But, we cannot allow collectivism to determine the individual and that is collectivism in any form; Federal, State or local. The individual must be allowed liberty IF he is to be a Moral Agent. Virtue only can be illustrated when one is free to choose virtue, but not when it is co-erced or "mandated"! And then, even "virtue" must be defined, to even have "significance". Definitons of words are defined within particular contexts with particular values. Therefore, a virtue that might be applauded in one context would not be in another.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As to virtue,
From what I read (briefly), the First Amendment right to free speech is also at issue.

Liberals would assert that "free speech" is an absolute because without it, there is room for oppression for the individual's free expression! And because libralism believes that tyranny is the demise of liberty, First Amendement rights are absolute.

Republicanism would assert that virtue has to consider context, as to free speech. Because humans are to be virtuous in character, which means deferring their "rights" to the 'peace of society', then freedom of expression is not an absolute.

The discussion over the preacher's right to burn the Koran vs. the Inman's right to build a mosque on the site where Americans died is a good example.

The preacher's right to dissent against another religion is an appropriate right in our American value system, as to free speech. Free speech in this instance was upholding America's value of "Christian faith", versus Islam's faith. This was a battle of identification factors. The preacher was affirming America's religion.

On the other hand, the Inman had a right under the First Amendment to build his mosque, but the right to do so where American lives were destroyed by Islamic radicals, was insentive to America's tolerance to a "foreign religion".

One must ask the question about assimilation, as to our immigration policy. Does the country of one's choice have a right to demand anything of the immigrant as to their values when it infringes on our values/preferences?

It seems that those that are "foreign" have more priviliedges than the average American citizen for fear of prejuidice or discrimination.

We must discriminate and be prejuidiced when it comes to our national security issues and our borders!!!

Unknown said...


We kind of ran the whole argument of rights being grounded in imago dei into the ground here a while back but I think it important to note that it seems that both Locke and Aquinas, along with natural law theorists in between, shared the belief that rights were to be grounded in man holding the image of God.

This is a pre-fall distinction and would seem to be the foundation for a rationale for self preservation.

Ties in well with love your neighbor as yourself.

Joe/King Of Ireland

Anonymous said...